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Music For 2 Pianos (Ax, Bronfman)

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BBC Review

Brahms was a stern critic of his own work, discarding much of his music before it ever got into the hands of his publishers or the public arena. Thankfully the two pieces on this cd escaped his severest punishment, but not before being subjected to a rework or two.

This recording showcases both pieces in their versions for two pianos. Brahms' Sonata in F minor was originally drafted as a string quintet, but after the harsh criticism it received from virtuoso violinist and friend Joseph Joachim, the composer defiantly scrapped his first attempt and reworked the Sonata for four hands.

The first movement sees the main motif skip between both pairs of hands, bringing out the fragile character of the higher register whilst reinforcing the darker tones of F minor at the lower end of the keyboard. Easing in softly, the melodic line of the second movement switches from major to minor, giving the Andante the feel of a melancholic lullaby. Sitting in stark contrast, the Scherzo follows with its bold chordal character, leading to the finale which accelerates to a presto before drawing to a close.

The 'Variations on a Theme by Haydn' were a turning point for Brahms. The collection not only formed the last piano work he composed on such a grand scale, but its subsequent rework as an orchestral pieceprovided a glimpse of the symphonic style that Brahms adopted later on in life. Based around a motif that Brahms adopted from a wind partita of Haydn's, the theme travels through eight different variations, scurrying between both pairs of hands in the Vivace and languishing sorrowfully in the Grazioso, before arriving triumphantly at the end of the finale.

The programme notes include comments from the performers, with Emanuel Ax citing the 'uncompromising' attack on the piano as a technical difficulty for four hands. Yet despite this, his partnership with Yefim Bronfman on the keyboard is seamless. The resulting performance captures Brahms' romantic style through flawless timing and remarkable musicianship.

Like This? Try These:

Schubert: Late Piano Sonatas (Murray Perahia)

Rachmaninov: Piano Transcriptions (Vladimir Ashkenazy)

Brahms: Piano Quartet, Schumann: Fantasiestücke (Argerich, Kremer, Bashmet, Maisky) --Helenka Bednar

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 4 reviews
27 of 27 people found the following review helpful
Refreshing for the Ears and the Soul 26 Mar. 2005
By Grady Harp - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD Verified Purchase
There are those who carry unmerited disdain for the reduction of orchestral or quartet music to the piano state. Many feel this is beyond any composer's wishes - to have orchestral, fluid colors and nuances be relegated to the intrinsically percussive reproduction on the keyboard. But in fact, many composers wrote both one piano/4 hands and two piano versions of their favorite works, often performing them with friends during their lifetimes - Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, Ravel to mention only a few.

This recording is a brilliant clarion call for such piano reduction performances. While everyone knows Brahms wrote 4 hand piano accompaniments for such works as his 'Liebeslieder', these two works here played with the full spectrum of intensity, suavity, clarity, percussive brilliance and gentle caressing by Emanuel Ax and Yefim Bronfman are likely to be surprises to the listener. VARIATIONS ON A THEME OF HAYDN is a standard in the orchestral repertoire and here placing these creative variations within the keyboard domains of Ax and Bronfman makes them sing with a completely new voice. Much the same can be said of the more elegant Piano Sonata in F Minor. What began as a solo piano work passed through the stage of a work for string quintet and here is presented in the two piano variation, a work of great beauty and expressivity.

Ax and Bronfman are so in tune with each other's dissimilar approach to the keyboard that the result of their collaboration is a vastly enhanced experience for the listener: compare the earlier Rachmaninoff 'Symphonic Dances' and Suites for 2 Pianos' recorded in 2001. Now the two pianists perform these works (and other works which we can only hope they will record!) on the stages of the orchestral halls around the world: their recent appearance in the Los Angeles Disney Hall was a sonic revelation. Highly recommended. Grady Harp, March 05
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
A faultless program, but Argerich is even more brilliant 11 Mar. 2010
By Santa Fe Listener - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
It seems strange, after going for decades when Brahms's two-piano arrangements were on the far edge of the repertoire, to find not one but two sets of star pianists recording them. The other, besides Ax and Bronfman, is Martha Argerich and Nelson Freire, who recently released a stunningly poised and unanimous reading of the Haydn Variations. Argerich, who abandoned the recital stage long ago, has become a fanatic for piano duos and four-hand music, so she can be found partnered on EMI's "Argerich and Friends" series with any number of keyboard partners. She's duplicated this Ax-Bronfman program with Alexandre Rabinovitch (Teldec) and the Sonata in F minor with Lilya Zilberstein (EMI). You'd hardly know that these two arrangements still appear very rarely in the concert hall.

Argerich's specialty is a free-spirited spontaneity that gives hints of a banked fire ready to turn into a wildfire. Brahms can certainly use the spark of excitement, and with her there are moments of danger and risk. For those reasons, it's hard to imagine better readings. Yet in their own right, Ax and Bronfman come through handsomely. Their F minor Sonata is so powerful and vital that it's almost as good as hearing the F minor Piano Quintet into which the music finally morphed. Two pianos have the advantage of perfect balance where it's a problem to balance a single piano with a string quartet. In the past I've complained about Ax and Bronfman being too polished and civilized, as in their recording of the two Rachmaninov Suites, where one is supposed to swoon, not sip tea. but this reading lacks nothing in alertness and energy.

As for the Haydn Variations, Argerich and Freire are miraculous in their live performance from Salzburg (DG), so it's hard to forget them in favor of Ax and Bronfman playing with solid technique, assured musicianship, but not quite that last spark of inspiration. The theme chosen by Brahms is so symmetrical and balanced that it needs to be thrown off kilter to sustain our interest through every variation. Ax and Bronfman are a bit hit and miss in that department, but mostly they cannot be faulted.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Emanuel Ax performance was excellent 23 May 2013
By Dennis Sharp - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD Verified Purchase
Great performance. CD was well produced. I enjoy Emanuel Ax's interpretation of Brahm's music, in general. I would recommend this CD to friends and family.
Pure Bliss 9 Jan. 2015
By Robert M. Reece MD - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD Verified Purchase
Two top pianists rendering famous piano duets. Pure bliss.
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